With a sudden rush that sent the sounds of grunts and screams into the cockpit, the Sept. 11 passengers of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 set off a bold, life-or-death battle to take back the plane.
A federal jury got to feel the tables of terror turn Wednesday, listening to a cockpit recording as al Qaeda pilot Ziad Jarrah asked what was happening, encouraged his knife-wielding comrades and prayed in Arabic: “Allah is greatest.”
A minute and a half later, he asked: “Shall we finish it off?” _ meaning crash the plane short of their target before the passengers won control.
“Not yet,” came the reply. “When they all come, we finish it off.”
The jurors in the death-penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui sat frozen as prosecutors played for the first time publicly the only cockpit voice recorder salvaged from the wreckage of four jetliners hijacked that day.
During the 32-minute tape, they heard an unidentified woman flight attendant plead for her life, apparently as a knife-wielding hijacker pinned her to the cockpit floor. And they heard the sound of crashing dishes as several athletes turned a food cart into a battering ram that ultimately seemed to burst through the cockpit door.
“I’m injured,” a voice, identified by family members as passenger Tom Burnett’s, said at 10 a.m., after the passengers made their first rush. One or more hijackers may have died in the struggle.
“In the cockpit. If we don’t, we’ll die,” came the frantic shout of another passenger as al Qaeda pilot Jarrah rolled the plane, up and down and from side to side, to throw the insurgents off balance.
Less than three minutes later, after what sounded like a furious struggle over the controls, all 33 passengers, seven crew members and four hijackers were dead. The passenger revolt forced the hijackers to slam the jetliner into a field near Shanksville, Pa., at 580 miles per hour. It was 20 minutes from its likely target: the U.S. Capitol.
The struggle aboard Flight 93, America’s most shining moment on one of its darkest days, has been the subject of at least four movies, including a Universal Pictures production hitting theaters later this month. Jurors at Moussaoui’s trial joined a relatively small circle of people to have heard the real thing.
Prosecutors played the tape and called Flight 93 victims’ relatives to testify before resting their case for Moussaoui’s execution. They also put into the record the names of all 2,972 people who died from the attacks, along with a huge poster of nearly all their pictures.
Defense lawyers for Moussaoui, who earlier undermined his case by testifying that he was training to pilot a fifth hijacked plane on Sept. 11 when he was arrested in Minnesota, now will begin presenting mitigating evidence. But they are expected to first let Moussaoui testify again on Thursday.
Late Tuesday, prosecutors played an air traffic control tape in which Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl or his co-pilot, LeRoy Homer, could be heard shouting “Mayday! Mayday!” and “Get out of here!” as the hijackers burst into the cockpit at 9:28 a.m. Either Dahl or Homer is believed to have been slain.
As jurors heard the cockpit recording Wednesday, they watched a color video showing a transcript, synchronized with the voices and the plane’s instrument readings of its speed, altitude, pitch and headings.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” came a voice from the cockpit at 9:31. “Here is the captain. Please sit down. Keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board. So sit.”
A hijacker is then heard telling someone to “shut up” and to “sit down.”
“No. No, no, no, no . . . No more. Please don’t hurt me,” a woman’s voice pleaded again and again, apparently as she was assaulted and forced to lie in the cockpit.
Later, her voice or another person near the cockpit begged: “I don’t want to die. . . . No, no, please.”
A hijacker then reported in Arabic: “Everything is fine. I finished,” _ words that may have signaled a slaying.
In the back of the plane, 13 of the terrified passengers and crew members made 35 air phone calls and two cell phone calls to family members and airline dispatchers, a member of an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force testified Tuesday. Several learned that Islamic hijackers had already flown other planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They said Flight 93’s terrorists wore red bandanas, one around his mid-section holding what he said was a bomb.
Burnett, a 38-year-old executive of a California medical device company, phoned his wife, Deena, at least three times in San Ramon, Calif., finally telling her he and others had a plan.
Among the 33 passengers were several burly athletic types: Burnett, a former quarterback for St. John’s University in Minnesota; Mark Bingham, a 6-foot-5 former member of the University of California’s national championship rugby team; Jeremy Glick, a former NCAA judo champ; Alan Beaven, a hulking New Zealander; Lou Nacke, a 5-foot-3, 200-pound weightlifter, and Todd Beamer, a former college basketball player, who was heard in another phone call to utter the now-famous words, “Let’s roll.” Flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw told her husband she was boiling water to throw on the hijackers.
Within minutes, the West Coast-bound plane took a hard U-turn over eastern Ohio, headed south and then east and began a steady descent from an altitude of over 20,000 feet to less than 6,000 feet.
At 9:53 a.m., it was clear that the hijackers saw the passengers gearing to attack. Jarrah or a comrade suggested holding up the cockpit’s fire axe _ apparently in front of the peephole in the cockpit door _ “so everyone will be scared.”
Then the sound of fighting set Jarrah to praying, and the hijackers tried to brace the door from inside.
At 9:59 came the sound of crashing dishes, and hijackers in the cockpit heard a silence.
Jarrah rolled the plane from side to side and up and down.
At 10:01 a.m., he asked again: “Is that it? I mean shall we pull it down?”
“Yes, put it in it, and pull it down,” a cohort said.
Four times, one of the hijackers barked, “Cut off the oxygen” to the cabin.
Then came an even louder clatter of dishes.
Screams of “ahh” could be heard as the plane began to bank to the right and rolled nose down toward the earth.
In the flight’s final 44 seconds, it was not clear whether passengers reached the controls. There were English commands of “turn it up” and “push, push, push” _ possibly aimed either at prying open the cockpit door or lifting its nose.
The hijackers’ cries of “Allah is the greatest” were the last words before the crash.
Hamilton Peterson, president of the board of the Flight 93 Families Association, said the tape “captures the American spirit,” calling it extraordinary “that these brave Americans in a few moments overcame a horrific challenge.”
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema barred the public release of the cockpit recording in response to objections from three victims’ family members and the Airline Pilots Association, but did allow the release of a nine-page transcript.
Burnett’s widow, Deena Burnett of Little Rock, Ark., called it “a travesty that they’re going to keep it under seal.”
“It’s been almost five years,” she said. “Let the American people hear it and see for themselves what happened and know that everyone aboard that flight was a hero.”